THEATRE: The Rough Side of the Boards; Bolton Octagon. Comfort and Joy; Oldham Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
The First Absolute Rule of Theatre, according to Henry Livings's new thespian comedy The Rough Side of the Boards is: "Tell 'em you're going to tell 'em. Tell 'em. Tell 'em you've told 'em."

Mike Harding, whose Christmas farce also opened last week, absorbed this lesson with his mother's milk - or, more likely, his grandad's pipe- smoke. So many running gags does he set in motion, the first 15 minutes of Comfort and Joy almost resembles the start of the Grand National. More than a few have pulled up very lame before the second circuit, but they're joined part of the way by enough one-liners in a lively gallop past the traditionalists of Holy Name where bingo is conducted in Latin so that the Protestants can't win, and on and on through the streets of Knaresborough where they apparently stand the dead up in bus queues.

Concert-master is Uncle Goff, who lives in sheltered housing, presumably to protect the rest of the community from the mischief, curmudgeonliness, and garden-allotment philosophising of a man for whom the decline of the West began with the disappearance of ash handles from saws. "Ted Ray is modern enough for me," he declares. Keith Clifford, a devotee of the halls, plays him with the northern comedian's traditionally doleful, collapsing countenance - like the Oldham Chron wrapped round wet fish. Wrapped round him is a large gallery of family types led by his long-suffering but doughty niece, the fine Meg Johnson, and indeed a plot with a neat final twist. Celia Perkins' costuming, from primary-teacher-casual to Goff's Sunday blazer, is a model of detailed social observation. One day, I suspect, Mike Harding will be wearing the latter himself.

If Comfort and Joy might just be about Harding future, The Rough Side of the Boards is about Livings past. Conducted by Arthur Bostrom's ringmaster / compere, we follow our hero through an undistinguished career on the repertory stages of the Fifties.

It's an uneven progress across largely familiar territory, but with some nice idiosyncratic touches such as his falling for Lechery in a student production of Dr Faustus, and a theatre digs reminiscence of a Houdini who was always forgetting his key. Elsewhere, there is occasionally a sense that some bits are sketches that Livings is finding a home for. The episode, however, which evokes his time with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and, in particular Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow, is of more than historical interest and shows how both authors produce a disconcerting mix of the serious and farcical. Theatrically, the most arresting aspect of Lawrence Till's production is the extraordinary way the cast produce accompanying sound effects from a variety of ordinary objects. But another of the Livings rules is "Silence is Action" - not a truth demonstrated in some of the pauses here.

But roll up, roll up, it's Summer - or Christmas - time for a good laugh and, as for significance, as Uncle Goff says, "Bugger it".

'Comfort and Joy' runs to 7 June (Booking: 0161-624 2829); 'The Rough Side of the Boards' runs also to 7 June (Booking: 01204 520661) Jeffrey Wainwright